We have a deeply troubled economy, an unpopular war, a very unpopular president and a historic reluctance on the part of the American people to elect the same party to the White House three terms in a row.
You look at all that, and you figure Obama would be leading by double digits. But he isn’t. The race is essentially tied, and not just in the national polls, which really don’t count for much, but in the Electoral College projections, which do. On Monday, MSNBC put its electoral count at 233 for Obama and 227 for McCain, with 270 needed for victory. That’s really close.
Some Democrats are getting very concerned, and they have been making their concerns known to the Obama campaign. “We’re familiar with this,” Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, told The New York Times a few days ago. “And I’m sure between now and Nov. 4 there will be another period of hand-wringing and bed-wetting. It comes with the territory.”
On Tuesday, I spoke to four prominent Democratic strategists, all of whom have had major roles in past presidential campaigns. I didn’t find any wet beds or wrung hands, but there was a white knuckle or two.
“I think this will be a close election, and all Democrats should approach it as if we could lose,” said Steve Elmendorf, who worked on Dick Gephardt’s and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns. Elmendorf said he is “not contemplating an Obama loss,” but “this is a closely divided country.”
He also said that the Obama campaign may have lost a little of its edge after winning a hard-fought primary campaign against Hillary Clinton and growing a little overconfident.
“I think for a time in August people were getting complacent,” Elmendorf said. “People were worried about the transition and not the election. But as this has gotten closer, it has increased interest and enthusiasm to make sure we win.”
But it’s still going to be a nail-biter.
“I think we have a slightly better than 50 percent chance to win the election,” Elmendorf said. “Ultimately, we have more paths to get to 270 [electoral votes] than John McCain does. He really has to thread the needle.”
Bob Shrum, who has worked on eight presidential campaigns, said, “Sure, we could possibly lose. Do I think we will? No. The whole tactic of the McCain campaign is fundamentally one of distraction. They don’t care if we talk about how their ads are false or about Sarah Palin, as long as the country is not talking about the economy and health care. But that can’t last until Nov. 4.”
Shrum believes, however, that Obama needs to win the presidential debates in order to win the election. Three presidential debates are scheduled, with the first one set to take place Sept. 26 in Oxford, Miss.
“Obama needs to come out of the debates, especially the first debate, very much in charge, stand up to McCain and communicate very clearly with people,” Shrum said.
Debating never was Obama’s strongest suit during the primaries, but Shrum believes this could help Obama by lowering expectations. “I think Obama benefits from the perception he was middling in the primary debates and was professorial at Saddleback,” Shrum said. (Obama and McCain appeared separately at a forum on faith hosted by the Rev. Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church on Aug. 16 in Lake Forest, Calif.)
“I assume Obama is getting ready not to be professorial in the presidential debates,” Shrum said. “He is a smart guy. If he makes a decision to do things a certain way, he will execute it.”
Shrum said it is not unusual if some Obama supporters are getting nervous right about now. “It seems that every four years, Democrats get a case of the wobblies and it never, ever helps,” Shrum said. Shrum said some of the wobblies are being generated by Hillary Clinton people.
“They didn’t win the nomination, but they think subconsciously or consciously they should be running the presidential campaign,” Shrum said. “This doesn’t help. It hurts. People outside the campaign don’t have the facts.”
If Obama loses in November, however, Shrum believes it is unlikely he will get a second chance.
“If we lose, people will say we never had better circumstances to win,” Shrum said. “It would be traumatic. A lot of people would say that we should have nominated Hillary. And she would be the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination in 2012.”
Chris Lehane worked in the Clinton White House and on Al Gore’s presidential campaign, and while Lehane believes certain trends favor Obama, he also believes the campaign will come down to a question of character.
“And the core character issue is who you can trust,” Lehane said. “People don’t want PowerPoint presentations, but a candidate who speaks directly to their hearts. They don’t want a 32-point plan on health care that goes over their heads; they want to know which candidate will stand with them.”
Lehane said that in election after election, the candidate who uses the question of trust most effectively against his opponent wins.
“Bill Clinton raised the trust question over whether Bob Dole could be trusted with the economy in 1996,” Lehane said. “Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 over who would you trust to stand up against powerful corporations, and George Bush beat Kerry in 2004 about whether Kerry could be trusted to make hard decisions. In 2008, it is going to be, ‘Who do you trust on the economy?’ And I think Obama will win.”
Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000, is used to this “bed-wetting” phase of the campaign. “Democrats are notorious for whining when things go bad,” she said. “A presidential campaign is not for the fainthearted.”
She is not without her own criticism of the Obama campaign, however. She believes that the race is “essentially tied” and that Obama’s media strategists “need to sharpen their ads so they are more memorable and have a shelf life of more than 24 hours.”
She also worries that the Obama campaign is “insular.” She said: “It doesn’t feel like a family with all voices at the table are as diverse as the party itself. It still feels like a primary campaign with some additions. It doesn’t feel like all hands on deck.”
She believes Obama “should get back to issues, instead of talking about change.”
“People still have lingering doubts about Obama as to whether he can be trusted as commander in chief,” Brazile said. “I thought his campaign would have more meat on the bones by now. They did great job at the convention, but it was short-lived.”
She said that at times “Obama’s voice is strong and articulate, but people don’t feel attached to him, and they have got to feel attached to him. That would answer some racial aspects that simmer below the radar and sometimes percolate over the top.”
“He has had some moments where he seems unsure of his own voice,” Brazile said, “but I still think he can pull this off.”
And if he doesn’t?
“If he doesn’t, then Obama didn’t lose,” she said. “The country just wasn’t ready.”